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The classics aren't safe (for anyone)
What’s the opposite of future shock?
Translated by Stephanie McCarter
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Christian Classical Education, or CCE, is growing in popularity across America, both as a homeschool approach and a private school curriculum philosophy. You can spot these schools because they usually have “classical” in the name, like the one that opened in my own city in 2016. One of the school’s founders writes:
We need to launch hundreds—no, thousands—of classical Christian schools. We need Christians who are founders, Christians who are funders, Christians who will serve as teachers and aides and administrators and board members. The renewal of education—and the renewal of culture—requires a return to classical wisdom. It’s time to build.
Recently Florida’s state university system made national news for its acceptance of a new alternative test to the ACT and SAT: The CLT or Classical Learning Test.
As far as I can tell, “classical” refers primarily to the overall structure of the curriculum—focused on logic, grammar, and rhetoric (the trivium). I’m not sure how it shapes the one-on-one pedagogy. There’s usually some kind of Latin language learning involved, though most school web sites are vague about what’s taught. There’s also usually a reference to the “Great Books.”
In general, it appears to be a hard reboot of “traditional” (pre-Deweyan?) education. And it feels a little like “Catholic school for Evangelicals,” uniforms and all.
Have you read these books?
As a lover of the humanities myself, I’m curious to see how this Christian Classical Education trend works out. (Full disclosure: I studied classics in Oxford for a semester through the CCCU seventeen years ago.) For two reasons:
One, the public overwhelmingly wants education to provide professional and technical skills that lead to good jobs and good careers. They don’t want to fork over large amounts of money for values or virtues or citizenship skills. Regardless of how you feel about it, that’s the state of play. The humanities and liberal arts remain in academia, but they typically exist to show that “cuts are being made.” (They don’t cost much, but they always seem to be first to go.) And hardly a tear is shed by alumni when these departments shrink. Even Christian higher education has not been immune to this eclipse of the liberal arts. So the trajectory of CCE in this kind of marketplace will be interesting.
Two, I’ve read a fair amount of the Great Books, and they are… not appropriate for children? If your biggest fear as a parent is that your kids will be exposed to sexual material at school that doesn’t fit your Christian values, it seems strange that your solution is to introduce them to the Great Books of Western Civilization. If you start reading Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, you will almost immediately read about incest, bestiality, witchcraft, gore, as well as homosexuality, masculine women, effeminate men, hermaphrodites, crossdressing, and sex changes.
These things aren’t a side show. They are the main show.
How are you going to learn about Alexander the Great… without learning about his male lovers?
How are you going to teach Greek plays… without talking about Oedipus?
How are you going to read Plato… without discussing Greek pederasty?
As I said, these aren’t peripheral matters. This is the literal core of the canon. And it only continues from there. What about Horace’s “thousand passions for girls, a thousand for boys?” Catullus’ homoeroticism? Sappho’s lesbianism? Propertius? The list goes on.
Christian vs. classical
Christians have wrestled with what to do with the Greco-Roman cultural tradition for two millennia. It’s a generative problem that stimulated the imaginations of Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. But it’s still a problem. For Dante and Milton, it is an epic problem—how to square the beauty of pagan poetry with Christian orthodoxy. And it’s highly debatable which side is more appealing and attractive in the end. (Most people find the pagan bits more compelling for both authors.)
I can only conclude that these schools in practice present only a heavily redacted introduction to the Great Books. If true, the likelihood of backfire seems high, as children grow up and start to read the great books on their own. If you teach kids Latin, what’s going to happen when they start reading Latin? But even if they only read these books in translation, they are going to discover that along with “good” things, they also include a lot—a LOT—of “bad” things, things their conservative Christian parents thought they were protecting them from.
Of course, the most likely outcome is probably that nobody—the parents, leaders, or students—read much of the Great Books at all. Skimming a list of Great Books gives you a warm, cozy feeling inside (maybe). Reading Titus Andronicus gives you…the opposite feeling.
So what’s really going on here?
I blame Lewis
I sometimes wonder if this isn’t all the fault of C.S. Lewis. If you are a thoughtful Christian, you’ve likely read your Lewis, your Tolkien, your Sayers, your T.S. Eliot, your Chesterton, your Flannery O’Connor. (She’s mentioned a time or two in the CCE articles I’ve read.) And from these sources you get the classical tradition second hand. All of these figures were Christian reactionaries in the early 20th Century, and all of them reached back to pre-industrial society to find their happy place.
Perhaps that’s a little too glib. They experienced the apocalypse of Europe in two World Wars. They saw human lives shattered by the destructive power of modern technology and modern ideology. Seemingly every intellectual of the first half of the 20th Century works with the underlying assumption that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with civilization. (Alan Jacob’s book The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an interesting dip into this history.)
So it’s understandable that there’s some deep nostalgia there for a lost world before the 20th Century. And Christianity and the classical tradition get woven together within these thinkers’ imaginations in ways that are rich, emotional, and resonant for anyone who thinks modern society was a big mistake—or even if you just feel like today’s world is missing a little magic or mystery.
But because these thinkers were selective about what they included, and because their readers aren’t familiar with the original material, it gives the illusion of an alliance between Christianity and paganism, as they are both propped up in opposition to modernity.
Notably, this completely bypasses the Protestant Reformation (and thus modern philosophy)—in which anything smacking of paganism was swept away. Tolkien, Sayers, Chesterton, and O’Connor were Catholic; Lewis and T.S. Eliot were Anglo-Catholic. Naturally, Christianity and the classics converge in Rome, but that’s hardly home turf for Protestants, Puritans, Victorians, and Fundamentalists. (Five of the six are British, with Eliot renouncing his American citizenship. Their appeal to Americans is surely influenced by the long American tradition of associating everything Anglo-Saxon with higher status.)
And yet, here we are in 2023, with American evangelicals championing the classics of all things, the classics they see through the eyes of their 20th Century Catholic (and Catholic-ish) intellectual heroes, cleaned up for middle class American mores. And all their Lutheran, Reformed, Congregationalist, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian ancestors must be like WUT.
Hello from the other side
Which brings us (perhaps surprisingly) to Stephanie McCarter’s 2022 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In her introduction, she notes that Ovid sits at the center of our culture wars:
It was indeed the Metamorphoses that gave rise to recent debates about “trigger warnings,” which ensued in the aftermath of a 2015 op-ed penned by undergraduates at Columbia University. These students objected to the fact that the epic was being taught without acknowledgement of or prior warnings about its sexual violence, a mode of teaching that did not take into account the reality that students might themselves have been victims of such violence. These students were widely denigrated as “snowflakes” who could not handle the most disturbing aspects of “great literature,” yet it was precisely the more disturbing aspects of these texts the writers were asking those teaching them to acknowledge and interrogate.
Having now read the Metamorphoses, I have to say: There’s a shocking amount of rape. By McCarter’s count, there are about fifty rapes or attempted rapes in the book, and they are described in dramatic detail.
In just this way the god and virgin run—
he fleet with hope and she with fear. But he
is faster, aided by the wings of Love.
He gives no rest. He’s right behind her back
and breathes into the hair across her neck.
Her strength is gone. She’s pale. Subdued by flight,
she sees Peneus’ waters and cries out,
”Help, father! If these streams of yours are holy,
destroy what makes me pleasing. Change my form!”
Her prayer just spoken, dull weight grips her limbs
as slender bark enfolds her supple torso.
Her hair sprouts up as leaves, her arms as branches.
A stiff root clasps her foot, just now so swift.
The treetop takes her mouth. Just her gleam remains.
Following these encounters, the victims are often transformed into plants, animals, or objects, sometimes as punishment for being raped.
She spoke, then grabbed Callisto’s hair and threw
her on the ground. The girl stretched out her arms,
a suppliant. Her arms began to sprout
dark fur. Her hands curved in and grew hooked claws,
doing the work of feet. The mouth that Jove
once praised contorted as the jaw gaped wide.
So that her prayers and praying words can’t sway him,
she’s robbed of speech. An angry, threatening voice
brimming with terror growls out of her throat.
And yet her mind remains inside the bear.
And often the bitter grief of the victim is dramatized as well:
While strolling on the lonely shore, she suffered
the forced rape of the sea god—that’s the rumor.
Once Neptune stole the joys of novel sex,
he said, ‘Whatever you desire, you’ll have it—
now make a wish.’ (Again, this is the rumor.)
Caenis replies, ‘Such an assault demands
a major wish: Make it impossible
for me to suffer such a thing again.
Make me not female. That is all I want.’
Ovid’s work is a collection of traumas. I knew there were stories like that in there, I just didn’t realize how much and how intense they would be.
The lovely Nereïd departs the deep
and slumbers on her customary bed.
When Peleus attacks the virgin’s body,
she starts to shift her shape. But realizing
her limbs are shackled and her arms stretched wide,
she groans and says, “Some god has helped you win.”
She changes back to Thetis. Then the hero
clasps her in her defeat and gets his wish.
He makes her pregnant with the great Achilles.
The victims are forever changed by their encounters, while the perpetrators simply move on. If I was a victim of sexual assault, and I was asked to read a book of fifty sexual assaults, each with their own horrifying ending—and then asked to discuss it in class—or write an in-depth literary analysis of their “meaning,” I would at minimum like to know what I’m signing up for. (Especially if it’s required, I’m paying for it, and I can’t drop the course) A class title of “Greco-Roman Mythology” or the like would not be a sufficient heads-up for anyone today.
The problematic classics
Like the examples I mentioned at the beginning, the Metamorphoses isn’t some cultural backwater. Shakespeare drew from its stories to write plays like Romeo & Juliet (and the aforementioned Titus Andronicus). Dante’s Inferno, in which historical figures are punished through transformation, would be nothing without Ovid. And it even shows up in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Ovid is a fountain, a central source for Western culture. It’s the main show.
But with so much violence against women, why should feminists read Ovid then? McCarter’s introduction serves as both an entry point into a famous work of literature and a defense for why people should be translating and reading this book at all:
Despite the temporal distance that separates us from Ovid’s Rome, the Metamorphoses holds up a spectacularly kaleidoscopic lens to the modern world, one that helps us reflect upon our own (in)humanity, our vulnerability, and our capacity for change.
Ironically, the classics remain relevant because we don’t know them. Most of the time, we don’t have a flipping clue what we mean when we talk about “tradition,” “classical,” “classics,” “Western Civilization,” and the like. The Great Books are a resource precisely because they continue to shock and surprise us. We think we own them, but then they break loose and rampage our modern sensibilities—conservative and liberal—as soon as we open them up. They are foundational to how we think, and they are not what we expected them to be. They contain wisdom, but they are certainly not wholesome or a hedge against a dangerous world. They remain a problem, a problem that stimulates us to question where we’ve come from, how we’ve changed, who we are now, and why.
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